Question: Format a Flash Drive as exFAT or NTFS?

Most of the time formatting a flash drive is a very simple decision. There are only two situations where you should take consideration on what format to use. Here are the details:

Note: This article is focused towards Windows and Mac operating systems.

The file formats available for a flash drive are:

  • FAT (also called FAT16)
  • FAT32
  • exFAT
  • NTFS
  • HFS (Mac only)

Flash drive manufacturers format a drive as either FAT or FAT32. Any device of 2GBs or smaller will be formatted as FAT and any USB over 2GBs will be formatted as FAT32.


These two formats are the best file system for removable drives like flash drives because they support the quick disconnect function and chances are very slim you will destroy the device or files if you unplug the USB without using the Eject function (in Windows) or Un-mount function (in Mac).

The one huge limitation with FAT and FAT32 is the single file size limitation. If a single file is larger than 2GBs you need to have the device as FAT32. If you have a single file bigger than 4GBs then you must use NTFS or exFAT. Typically these large files are either video files or restore image files (for restoring a computer operating system from a single image file).

So what if you have a file bigger than 4GBs? Well, you have to decide what is the lesser of two evils.

Here is the problem. If you format as NTFS it works great on all Windows machines, but Macs can only read from the device, they cannot write to it. There are some plugins to help the Mac deal with NTFS but our experience proves those add-ins to be unstable.

If you format it as exFAT all computers (Windows and Macs) will see the drive except for Windows XP.

So you must decide to accommodate the Windows XP users or accommodate the Mac users.

Given that Mac computers are on the rise, your best option is to format the drive as exFAT. If there is a Windows XP user out there, they can download the plugin from Microsoft to allow an XP operating system to see the exFAT device without wanting to format it. Also keep in mind that XP is a 15 year old operating system (at the time of this post) and Microsoft no longer supports the OS.

As a closing note, the NTFS file system is not ideal for flash drives because it’s a dynamic file system. Meaning information can be writing to the flash drive at times in which you think the USB is idle. So in a situation where you disconnect the USB while there is a write change taking place to the file system, there is a good chance you will corrupt the data. Not good.

If you have more questions about formatting USB devices, please Contact Us.

Windows update for XP users to read exFAT USB devices HERE

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Matt LeBoff

Kicking around in technology since 2002. I like to write about technology products and ideas, but at the consumer level understanding. Some tech, but not too techie.

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